PORTSMOUTH - Barack Obama is finding out what it means to be an agnostic when the religion is health care.
While moderating a health care community meeting at Seacoast Media Group Tuesday, the Illinois senator and Democratic presidential hopeful was reminded again of the depth of voter frustration, especially among Democrats, with the current system - and he heard frequent calls for more radical reform solutions.
In a newly released University of New Hampshire survey poll, the war in Iraq was the top issue among likely Democrat voters. Health care ranked second and was by a wide margin the most important domestic concern.
The candidates, primarily on the Democratic side, are confronting a depth of voter frustration not seen in the country since the 1992 election cycle. The question is no longer whether to institute universal health care but how to get there in an employer-based insurance system that has left behind more than 45 million uninsured Americans.
"I want to be held accountable," Obama told the Herald after the event about how he plans to formulate a comprehensive, politically feasible policy "to get the voters, to get Americans to rally behind."
Obamas goal is universal coverage and his approach so far has been to be "agnostic" - to have an open mind and incorporate every good idea he can find.
But theres also a politically feasible calculation not unlike that of primary rival Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. Clinton has advocated basic health insurance protection for every American and called for reforms to focus on greater technology efficiencies while promoting more high quality, nondiscriminatory plans and greater coverage.
Another primary rival, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, advocates more radical reforms to achieve not universal access but coverage through a wholesale shake-up of the existing system by offering public and private purchasing pools. He plans to pay the estimated $90 billion to $120 billion annually for his programs by reversing Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy income earners.
Only Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio has advocated and introduced legislation in Congress for a no-holds-barred single-payer, government-run universal health care system that would cover every American - one that many meeting attendees called for Tuesday but which many in Washington, D.C., believe is a non-starter because it would cost too much and be too radical a jump of government intervention.
Republicans like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani can make a campaign speech and not even mention health care - as he did Tuesday in New Castle.
But no Democrat can afford such a luxury. Obama said he wasnt sure if the country was at the same place policy-wise as the folks who expressed their concerns and ideas at Tuesdays communitys meeting. But if major corporations such as Wal-Mart are coming around on significant health care reform, it could be a case of Democrat voters in New Hampshire being far ahead of the politicians.
Who comes the closest to catching up to the voters might be the next Democratic presidential nominee.